- Britain’s Retreat from East of Suez: The Choice between Europe and the World?
In Britain's Retreat from East of Suez, Saki Dockrill provides the most thoroughly researched, rounded, and insightful analysis to date of the decision taken by Harold Wilson's Labour government in 1967-1968 to relinquish Britain's claim to be a first-rank world power and to settle instead for a future as "a modern, medium-sized world power," albeit one that was increasingly European-oriented (p.226). The decision to withdraw from military bases east of Suez—from Singapore, Malaysia, and the Persian Gulf—was taken in the midst of a severe economic crisis and, as such, has often been attributed to short-term economic imperatives and to the forceful advocacy of the chancellor of the exchequer, Roy Jenkins, in overcoming the doubts of ministers who still equated national status with global reach. In reality, as Dockrill shows, the devaluation of the British pound in November 1967, followed by the announcement of the "East of Suez" decision in January 1968, was not entirely a case of cause and effect. The commitment to overseas defense contraction had really been taken in July [End Page 161] 1967 as part of an intensive and lengthy defense review process. The subsequent economic downturn affected the timing of the public announcement and the completion date of the disengagement, but it did not cause the basic decision.
The fact that a similar degree of global retreat did not occur earlier did not mean—as Dockrill rightly shows—that it was not considered earlier. Accordingly, when Wilson wrote to President Lyndon Johnson in January 1968 to explain that the East of Suez decision was "the most difficult and the heaviest" that he and his colleagues had ever taken in public life (pp.207-208), it marked not just the culmination of four years of especially intense deliberation by the Labour governments, but arguably more than twenty years of consideration, reflection, review, and angst on the part of British ministers and officials from both major parties.
That the decision had been so long in the making testifies to the difficulty that the British politico-military establishment had in accepting with its collective heart what seemed obvious to its head. In 1952, Anthony Eden, who was not particularly renowned as a visionary or a strategist, told the cabinet that "the essence of a sound foreign policy is to ensure that a country's strength is equal to its obligations. If this is not the case, then either the obligations must be reduced to the level at which resources are available to maintain them, or a greater share of the country's resources must be devoted to their support." Eden, however, was unwilling to follow through on his own thoughts. He ruled out the abandonment of any significant overseas commitments on the ground that whatever financial savings accrued would be outweighed by the damage to Britain's prestige: "It is evident that in so far as we reduce our commitments and our power declines our claim to the leadership of the Commonwealth, to a position of influence in Europe, and to a special relationship with the United States will be, pro tanto, diminished." It was difficult, Eden admitted, to quantify the general effect of a loss of prestige occasioned by "our drastically and unilaterally reducing our responsibilities," but it seemed clear that "once the prestige of a country has started to slide there is no knowing where it will stop." (All quotations here are from "British Overseas Obligations," Eden memorandum, 18 June 1952, in United Kingdom National Archives, London, CAB 129/53, C(52)202.)
Eden, like Bevin before him, sought to balance overseas commitments with a shrinking economic power base by encouraging the United States to adopt the kinds of policies that Britain, had it been able to, would have pursued independently—a strategy of "power-by-proxy," as David Reynolds described it in his Britannia Overruled: British Policy and World Power in the...